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The Bird Lady: Ironside Bird Rescue celebrating 30 years of volunteer care

A young great horned owl awaits release after coming in with a hurt wing. Ironside Bird Rescue cared for 37 great horned owls in 2016. A young great horned owl awaits release after coming in with a hurt wing. Ironside Bird Rescue cared for 37 great horned owls in 2016. Tribune photos by Mark Davis

This past winter, after she fell, Susan Ahalt got on the phone and called a couple volunteers from her short list. Ahalt rarely needs help, but at 74, the the list of chores she can no longer do is growing. The broken kneecap only slowed her down. She knows if she can’t do the work, many will suffer.

“There’s no one to take my place,” Ahalt said.

For 30 years, Ahalt has served northern Wyoming as one of only three wild bird rehabilitation facilities in the state. Don’t recognize the name?

“Nobody knows my name. They just know me as The Bird Lady,” Ahalt said.

Ahalt started Ironside Bird Rescue, Inc., a nonprofit that gives long-term care to injured birds, in 1987. She has cared for thousands of birds and even a few critters in the past 30 years — in her own home, if needed. On Wednesday, Ahalt and Marion Niedringhaus released a male kestrel after rescuing it with a badly broken leg.

“It was so excited to be free,” Niedringhaus said.

The bird circled twice before landing in a nearby bush to get its bearings. Niedringhaus brought the kestrel to Ahalt in June. The bird needed reconstructive surgery and a safe place to recover. The gregarious bird took a liking to Ahalt, often landing on her head during feeding time. He was released near the Trout Creek Ranch.

“It is covered in cottonwood, buckbrush and lots of mice,” Niedringhaus said. “We didn’t think he could make it, but the surgery went really well. I was so happy to be a part of this.”

Niedringhaus drove from Sheridan for the chance to see the bird go free.

Dr. Malcom L. Blessing, former owner of the Lifetime Small Animal Hospital in Cody, is one of the few community members who actually knows Ahalt’s name. He has worked with her for three decades and he’s a big fan.

“She has been the voice for raptors in this entire area, even as far away as Idaho, for years,” Blessing said. “She’s amazing.”

About 25 years ago, an eagle was brought to Blessing with a gunshot. Half of its beak was blown off. Blessing fashioned a prosthetic beak and delivered the bird to Ahalt.

“She cared for that bird intensely,” Blessing said. “She’s like a bird nurse.”

Blessing started taking in birds in the ‘70s and now the hospital sees more than 100 raptors a year.

“Ahalt’s contributions allow us to help more birds,” Blessing said. Blessing still works at the hospital part-time after a recent sale of the business.

Ironside doesn’t receive financial support from state or federal agencies, but they often call on her help.

When two juvenile Cooper’s were shot last month near Greybull, Bill Robertson, game warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, called on The Bird Lady.

“She’s a critical element in our operation,” Robertson said, adding, “She’s all in — 24/7, 365. It takes a special kind of person to do that.”

One of the two hawks, thought to be siblings, perished. But the other quickly healed and has already been released.

“The best part of my job is seeing the south side of a bird going north. It’s why I do this,” Ahalt said.

She has learned to take the good with the bad and, after all these years, is rarely surprised. Her big jobs included caring for eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey. Last year she cared for 37 great horned owls. Her shelter is still full this year — the more people who learn of her service, the more birds are brought to her.

She’s currently rehabilitating a juvenile bald eagle, seven great horned owls, a Cooper’s hawk, several red-tailed hawks, and peregrine and prairie falcons.

She’s also met some rare customers.

“I’ve cared for birds that aren’t supposed to be here [in Wyoming],” she said.

Pacific Loons, a lesser frigatebird and a wood stork — all birds that are very rare in the state — have ended up in her care. Ahalt has also cared for other critters. People have brought her deer, badgers, rabbits — almost anything that needs caring for. On top of all of her duties, Ahalt is also a foster parent for kittens from the Cody animal shelter.

When Ahalt finally calls it quits — something she’s not likely to do voluntarily — there will be a huge void needing to be filled. Becoming certified to care for wildlife is harder now than it was 30 years ago and the cost to build a facility is too much for many to do on their own.

“If I wanted to build another eagle barn it would cost me $100,000 to $150,000 now,” she said. With donations and help with construction, her current eagle barn cost one tenth as much.

Ahalt has some good corporate donors, including Rocky Mountain Power/PacifiCorp. She receives a big break on vet bills at Lifetime Small Animal Hospital in Cody. But her entire operation is run on donations and vet bills, even with the discounts, run in the thousands per month.

“The birds are self-sufficient thanks to grants and our donors,” Ahalt said.

As she does her chores she’s wearing a new heart-rate monitor, a concern of hers. If she is forced to quit, having someone take over the operation will be tough. Ahalt’s home is built around the facility. She even has an aviary attached to her bedroom for all the unwanted pet birds people bring her — everything from parrots to pigeons. Ironside is the only bird rescue in the state that will take any kind.

“I’ve never turned down a bird,” she said. “I’ll raise birds in my living room if I have to.”

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